Spain's top immigration official: Immigration will transform Europe in the next 20 years
A European Commission proposal for stricter controls on illegal workers and efforts to ensure migrants' children are well educated should help the continent digest the large influx of workers, Immigration Secretary Consuelo Rumi said.
"Not only Spain, but most of the European Union is going to be a very different society," Rumi said in response to a question about the outlook for the next two decades.
"We will have to learn how to live with different races, different sorts of people and ensure harmony between the different cultures which will make up our societies."
Spain, which had very few immigrants until the early 1990s, is now home to about four million foreigners, 10 percent of its population. Some of these are retirees from places like Germany and Britain, but most have come from Morocco, Latin America and Eastern Europe to seek work in a booming economy.
"A city like Madrid could not function without immigration," Rumi said in an interview on Wednesday.
Spain's Socialist government annoyed its European partners by granting an amnesty to about 600,000 paperless migrants in 2005 but has since tried to crack down on illegal immigration.
Madrid has imposed visa requirements on countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia and has stepped up repatriations after a political furore over the arrival of 30,000 Africans who sailed to the Canary Islands last year.
"If you enter illegally you leave the country in the shortest possible time," Rumi said of Spain's 'revolving door' repatriations.
This year, the government expects to grant visas to about 200,000 people from outside the European Union who have been awarded working contracts, Rumi said.
Family reunions and arrivals from within Europe and elsewhere means the total number of immigrants per year is running at about three times that number, analysts say.
Spanish companies including VIPS convenience shops and department store El Corte Ingles recruit in places like Latin America, and the government says Spain's economy would not have outperformed other countries in Europe without migrants.
The Bank of Spain has also said migration has slowed wage growth, which helps keep the country competitive but contributes to growing inequality.
Rumi acknowledged there was a debate about the effect on wages. "It's up to the unions to make sure it doesn't happen," she said.
Spain is backing European Commission proposals to favour temporary immigration and step up inspections of companies employing workers illegally.
"A businessman who hires workers illegally is going to have to pay the cost of their repatriation," if the commission gets its way, Rumi said.
Other European countries with longer histories of immigration, particularly France, have experienced problems when alienated communities have been concentrated in poor suburbs.
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